The Shaky Foundation of Trump’s Lead: Disengaged Voters

The polls have shown Donald Trump with an edge for eight straight months, but there’s one big flashing warning sign suggesting that his advantage might not be quite as stable as it looks.

That warning sign: His narrow lead is built on gains among voters who aren’t paying close attention to politics, who don’t follow traditional news and who don’t regularly vote.

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To an extent that hasn’t been true in New York Times/Siena College polling in the last eight years, disengaged voters are driving the overall polling results and the story line about the election.

President Joe Biden has actually led the last three Times/Siena national polls among those who voted in the 2020 election, even as he has trailed among registered voters overall. And looking back over the last few years, almost all of Trump’s gains have come from these less engaged voters.

Importantly, these disengaged low-turnout voters are often from predominantly Democratic constituencies. Many continue to identify as Democratic-leaning and still back Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, but they nonetheless are backing away from Biden in startling numbers. In the Times/Siena polling, Biden wins just three-quarters of Democratic-leaning voters who didn’t vote in the 2022 midterm election, even as almost all high-turnout Democratic-leaners continue to support him.

Trump’s strength among low-turnout and less engaged voters helps explain a lot of what’s strange about this election. It illustrates the disconnect between Trump’s lead in the polls and Democratic victories in lower-turnout special elections. And it helps explain Trump’s gains among young and nonwhite voters, who tend to be among the least engaged. His strength among young voters, in particular, is almost entirely found among those who did not vote in the midterms.

While the race has been stable so far, Trump’s dependence on disengaged voters makes it easy to imagine how it could quickly become more volatile. As voters tune in over the next six months, there’s a chance that disengaged but traditionally Democratic voters could revert to their usual partisan leanings. Alternately, many of these disaffected voters might ultimately stay home, which might help Biden.

Biden’s weakness among disengaged voters reframes the challenge ahead for his campaign. Whether he can win these voters back will depend on why these voters have defected from him, but it will also depend on whether the Biden campaign can reach these voters at all.

Television advertisements on the major networks may not reach the voters Biden needs.

How less engaged voters are different

It’s tempting to believe that less engaged voters are just like demographically similar but highly engaged voters with the exception that they’re not paying such close attention. If that were true, Biden could count on disengaged young, Black and Hispanic voters to flock to his side once they tune in to the race.

The Times/Siena data suggests it may not be so simple. Less engaged Democratic-leaning voters have distinct political views, and they get their political information from different sources. Even if the Biden campaign can reach these voters, it is not a given that they will return to the Democratic fold.

In the battleground states, Democratic-leaning irregular voters are far less likely to identify as liberal. They’re much less likely to say abortion and democracy are the most important issues, and instead they’re far likelier to cite the economy. They overwhelmingly say the economy is “poor” or “only fair,” even if they’re still loyal to Biden, while a majority of high-turnout Democratic-leaning voters say the economy is “good” or “excellent.”

One important factor might be media consumption. While Biden holds nearly all of his support from voters who consume traditional mainstream media — national newspapers, television networks and the like — the disengaged are far likelier to report getting their news from social media.

With these distinct views, it may not be so easy for Biden to win these voters back, even if their demographic traits and traditional partisan allegiances still suggest paths for the Biden campaign to do so.

Why pollsters have a problem

The unusual significance of low-turnout voters also creates major challenges for pollsters, who have long known that low-turnout voters are less likely to respond to political surveys. This long-standing pattern takes on new significance this cycle, as a typical political survey would probably underestimate Trump without steps to reach the proper share of irregular voters. (We make every effort to account for this in our polling.)

On the other hand, lower-turnout voters, of course, are less likely to vote. While millions of irregular voters will undoubtedly turn out this November, no one knows just how many of them will ultimately show up — let alone exactly which ones will do so. This too is always a challenge for pollsters, but the deep divide between regular and irregular Democrats this cycle means that the polls may be unusually sensitive to the ultimate makeup of the electorate, with Biden potentially favored if enough of his disengaged defectors stay home.

Who will ultimately vote?

If there are two consecutive elections with the same level of turnout, you might assume that it’s more or less the same people voting in each election. But surprisingly, that’s not the way it works.

There’s a lot more churn in the electorate than most people realize. Even if the turnout stays the same, millions of prior voters will stay home and be replaced by millions who stayed home last time.

Historically, around 25% of presidential election voters do not have a validated record of voting in the previous presidential election. This is partly because of newly registered voters, who usually vote in the next election (and who may have previously voted in a different state). But it’s also because around 30% to 40% of previous registrants who skipped the last election ultimately show up and vote in the next.

There are good reasons to expect fewer voters in 2024 than in recent cycles, as the 2020 election was the highest-turnout election in a century. But if you think that means that there won’t be many new voters, you’re already wrong: In fact, 10% of those who were registered but didn’t vote in 2020 have already voted, in 2022’s relatively low-turnout midterms. The usual churn is already at work.

Still, Trump’s big edge among nonvoters means the exact number of new voters could be hugely important or even decisive. And even beyond the proportion of new voters, exactly which new voters show up could also be pivotal. In recent years, Democrats have benefited from what we’ve called a “hidden” turnout advantage — a tendency for Democratic-leaners who vote to be more anti-Trump than those who stay home.

With that history in mind, Democrats can hope that higher turnout will draw a disproportionately anti-Trump group of irregular voters to the polls. There were signs of this yet again in the recent Times/Siena (and Times/Philadelphia Inquirer/Siena) battleground polls, as Democratic-leaning nonvoters who backed Biden were 20 percentage points likelier to say they were “almost certain” or “very likely” to vote than those who preferred Trump.

Of course, it’s unlikely that disengaged, irregular voters have already formed solid plans about November. There’s plenty of time for them to make up or change their minds about whom they might vote for — and about whether they’ll vote at all.

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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